As Victoria emerges from its long lockdown, cinemas, among the last businesses to reopen under the roadmap to recovery, are finally open to the public again. But how will they operate in a Covid-normal world? Have we learnt to live without them?
Right now there is a sudden glut of new content hitting the big screens. While people in other states have had the pleasure of going to the cinema for months, distributors have held off releasing their big titles – with one exception: Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, which bombed internationally. Victoria is a large piece of the income pie, particularly for arthouse films where Melbourne alone accounts for roughly half of the national revenue. A national release without Melbourne didn’t make sense in most cases.
In June, when cinemas tentatively reopened after the first wave of Covid-19, there was much anxiety among distributors as to how future spikes in the number of cases would affect a film’s profitability. These concerns proved well founded. Now that the second wave seems to be behind us, and given the thoroughness with which Covid-19 has been virtually eliminated across Australia, distributors have good reason to feel more confident about releasing films in cinemas again. But will the public feel the same way?
Many Victorian cinemas opened their doors on November 9, and a number of new films were released on November 12 (Thursday being the traditional day to open films in Australia). Prohibitive restrictions apply to Victorian cinemas. At the time of writing this article, only twenty patrons can be inside an auditorium; the limit will rise to 100 on November 22.
Cinema owners are ensuring the safest possible environment for patrons, with socially distanced allocated seating, constant cleaning, online contact-tracing ticketing, cashless payments, staff temperature checks, staff and patron masks, extra time between sessions, and ubiquitous hand sanitisers.
Whether this will inspire enough confidence from the general public remains to be seen. The prolonged lockdown has given streaming services plenty of time to encroach further on cinema’s territory. Theatrical windows had already been shrinking, and acclaimed films with less obvious commercial appeal, like First Reformed (2017) and The Sisters Brothers (2018) have been bypassing cinemas in recent years.
Have audiences become so inured to having the latest films delivered to their homes that they no longer feel the need to go out and sit in a cinema for two or three hours, still wearing their masks? Or are people so sick of their television screens that they are craving the shared experience of a cinema?
To complicate matters, Australia now finds itself in a unique situation. While we have the luxury of choosing to go back to our favourite cinema, much of the world is still, for the main part, firmly in the grip of the pandemic. With so many sacrifices having already been made, at this point it will be painful for countries to go through the kind of severe lockdown that Victoria endured to achieve its current enviable position. Cinemas are closing again all over America and Europe. What does this mean for film exhibition in Australia? Hollywood blockbusters such as Wonder Woman 1984 and the latest James Bond instalment, No Time To Die, have had their releases deferred several times, and Disney have already pulled the plug on two potential money spinners, with Hamilton having already gone straight to their streaming platform, Disney+, and the latest Pixar film, Soul, set to go the same route in December. Disney has recently postponed two other high-profile releases, Free Guy and Death on the Nile.
It’s entirely possible that the United States will postpone any major releases for the first few months of 2021. Will the threat of piracy mean that Australia will have to wait until America is in a safe enough place to see these films on the big screen before we do? Piracy could also impact in the other direction. If the latest films are going straight to streaming in the United States, will it be a riskier financial proposition to release them theatrically in Australia?
The paucity of big Hollywood movies could be an advantage for smaller independent films from around the globe, including local ones. New Australian titles like The Dry (directed by Robert Connolly) could flourish with less competition, and without the usual weekly plethora of new releases, smaller titles could once again prosper, as they did years ago when word of mouth produced sleeper hits like Juno (2007) and the original Mad Max (1979).
It’s a scenario that has played out in European countries in recent weeks. While box-office receipts didn’t exactly return to normal after the first wave of the pandemic, many countries, such as France, saw local films win a greater share of overall revenue.
This could be an interesting time to be in film distribution. Surely there are some unsung gems waiting for their chance to shine in a less crowded playing field. Australians have always been fond of a film festival. In normal years, there is at least one festival underway in the big cities at any time (many of them from Palace Cinemas, like the current British Film Festival). If the country continues to enjoy a Covid-normal environment, these festivals might produce more breakout hits than usual.
There’s no telling how long this scenario could play out. The opening of cinemas across Australia couldn’t have come at a better time. Christmas is an especially festive season for Australian exhibitors and distributors, with Boxing Day being the busiest day of the year. For much of the United States and other countries, cinemas will be closed or practically empty over the Christmas period, which could have dire repercussions, including the permanent closure of some venues. The National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) in the United States predicts that as many as seventy per cent of small- to mid-sized theatres face bankruptcy by early next year without some kind of federal assistance, which appears unlikely any time soon.
If these closures were to occur, it would spell a further shift towards in-home viewing in the United States, which could have a knock-on effect here. No doubt streaming giants will pounce on any chance to further build their audiences. Increasingly, we are seeing significant filmmakers enjoy the relative autonomy of making films with streaming services, and the wider reach that their films have via Netflix, Amazon, and the like.
Down the line, we will feel the impact of the current interruption to film production. With so many large-scale productions on hold, this could create further opportunities for smaller independent films to break through.
It’s a strange new world out there, but it’s comforting to think that, despite all the pain that exhibitors, distributors, filmmakers, and the public have endured this year, the Covid cloud may just have a silver lining or two.